Urban sociology is a field that studies human groups in a territorial frame of reference. The major focus of inquiry in urban sociology is social organization. This field studies the interplay between social and spatial organization as well as the ways in which changes in spatial organization affect social and psychological well being. A common curiosity about the changing dynamics, determinants and consequences of the city, which is the urban society's most characteristic form of settlement, has tied together a wide variety of interests.
Sociological concern with urbanization began with sociology itself, because the new discipline was inspired by social relationships and structures first supported by the rapidly growing nineteenth-century industrial cities. Most early sociologists shared the anti-urban bias of much of the thought and writing of the Victorian era as well as a correspondingly romanticized view of rural life. A key concern at the time was the apparent breakdown of community and social control that resulted from urbanization.
These concerns were incorporated in Georg Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life, published in 1903, in which he discussed urban life-styles and personality. Simmel viewed the social organization and culture typifying urban areas as the consequence of large population aggregates. Thus he linked the physical characteristics of the cities with the social characteristics of their inhabitants. Simmel's analysis and ideas, which he derived from Darwinian ecology, shaped the Chicago School of urban sociology.
Chicago urban sociology was the dominant paradigm between the 1920s and the 1950s. The most famous summation of the paradigm occurred in Louis Wirth's article "Urbanism as a Way of Life", published in 1938. Wirth used three universal features of cities, large size, high density, and social heterogeneity, to derive ideal-typical social characteristics of urban life. The Chicago school stimulated important empirical research.
Empirically, the work of researchers such as Herbert Gans in the United States and R. E. Pahl in Britain disproved any necessary connection between urban location and particular life-styles. Theoretically, the approach involves a form of naturalism which reifies physical characteristics of cities, falsely identifies them as the causes and not the consequences of social processes and erroneously concludes that social patterns occurring in cities are caused by cities. The analysis of this approach suggests that to derive typical or characteristic patterns of social life from supposedly universal physical or demographic features of cities is to commit an empirical as well as an epistemological error. By the 1960s, the paradigm had disintegrated.
Nevertheless, there were several attempts to provide a new unifying theoretical paradigm for urban sociology. These attempts included neo-Weberian theories of housing classes and urban managerialism, so-called non-spatial urban sociology that focuses on consumption-sector cleavages and neo-Marxist perspectives that center on collective consumption. The last of these approaches defined the new urban sociology of the 1970s.
The most important text of this paradigm was Manuel Castell's The Urban Question, published in 1977. Castell drew on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas and developed an elaborate account of the so-called structures and practices of capitalist urbanization. He suggested that modern capitalism was increasingly dependent on state-supplied goods and services to ensure adequate reproduction of its labor force. His accounts led to rising conflict between the state and urban social movements.
Urban sociologists use a number of different approaches to the notion of community in an attempt to capture changes in the way individual urbanites are tied together into meaningful social groups and the way those groups are tied into other social groups in the broader territory they occupy. Networks of routine, face-to-face primary interaction among the members of the group indicate an interactional community. An ecological community is one in which members engage in routine patterns of activity to meet the basic requirements of daily life. A composition community refers to a cluster of people sharing common social characteristics, while a commonality of beliefs and attitudes among members defines a symbolic community.
There are two major traditions in the research on the general issue of how these different forms of organization change as cities grow. The ecological perspective focuses on the study of the role of economic competition in shaping the urban environment. Ecological studies analyze ecological and compositional communities in an attempt to describe and generalize about urban forms and the processes of urban growth. Sociocultural studies focus on the importance of cultural, psychological and other social dimensions of urban life, analyzing the interactional and symbolic communities.